Zapping the Brain at Certain Times Improves Memory

brain, neurons
(Image credit: Naeblys/

Zapping the brain with just a bit of electricity at the right time may help to improve memory function in some people, according to a new study.

The findings of the study, which was conducted in patients with epilepsy, may one day help researchers develop technologies that could aid people with memory loss stemming from such diseases as Alzheimer's, the researchers said. However, more research is needed to examine whether electrical stimulation is a potential treatment for memory improvement.

In the study, the researchers looked at 150 people who had electrodes implanted into their brains as part of their epilepsy treatment. The researchers asked the people to learn lists of words, and then try recall these words later while the researchers monitored their brain activity.

Based on the data, the scientists identified patterns of brain activity that signaled that a person's memory was functioning well, and other patterns that signaled his or her memory was functioning poorly. In other words, "sometimes you can learn things quickly and easily, and other times your mind is not as sharp," said study co-author Michael Kahana, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. The data allowed the researchers to tell these states apart just by looking at someone's brain activity. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

The scientists then conducted another experiment, in which they delivered pulses of electrical stimulation to the study participants' brains while they were trying to memorize lists of words. This time around, the scientists discovered that, when they delivered the stimulation during times of good memory function, the participants' memory got worse. But when they delivered it during times of poor memory function, their memory improved.

"On average, we got a 13 percent improvement across the group," Kahana told Live Science.

Previous research on the effectiveness of electrical stimulation for memory improvement had yielded mixed results, but the new study shows that timing is key when delivering such stimulation, according to the study, published Thursday (April 20) in the journal Current Biology. [6 Foods That Are Good For Your Brain]

The researchers' next step is to create a technology "that would capitalize on this discovery that timing is so important," Kahana said. This technology would involve a device that would constantly monitor the brain and trigger stimulation "only when the brain can benefit from stimulation, meaning when the brain is not functioning as well as it normally functions," he said.

However, more research is needed before such technology could be used in people with memory loss. "Technology based on this type of stimulation could produce meaningful gains in memory performance, but more work is needed to move from proof-of-concept to an actual therapeutic platform," study co-author Daniel Rizzuto, director of cognitive neuromodulation at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer